This year, Rhode Island can turn a corner on ethics. For the better part of a decade, good government groups like Common Cause have toiled at the Statehouse to pass legislation that would give the Ethics Commission jurisdiction over members of the General Assembly. Whether we can thank John Carnevale, Ray Gallison or Gordon Fox for inspiration, in 2016 the General Assembly unanimously supported putting ethics reform on this year’s ballot. As a result, on Nov. 8, Rhode Island voters will have the opportunity to approve question 2 and restore the Ethics Commission’s full oversight of members of the General Assembly.
While I know that approval of question 2 will not ensure ethical behavior, it will close a seven-year old loophole that severely weakened the Ethics Commission. In 2009, the Rhode Island Supreme Court issued its decision in the case of William V. Irons v. Rhode Island Ethics Commission and gave General Assembly members immunity from complying with the state Code of Ethics for matters involving legislation. This immunity has meant that the Ethics Commission cannot investigate or punish members of the General Assembly if the case would rely on using “core legislative acts” as evidence. Because “core legislative acts” include “proposing, passing, or voting upon a particular piece of legislation,” members of the General Assembly can vote on legislation even if they alone will benefit financially and the Ethics Commission is powerless to prosecute them for an obvious conflict of interest. Should Rhode Island voters approve question 2 on Nov. 8, legislators will be subject to the scrutiny of the Ethics Commission, period.
While ethics reform may seem archaic, even quaint, strengthening the Ethics Commission is an important part of Rhode Island’s next chapter. Our little state has been in an ethical rut for far too long and taking steps to prioritize ethical government is important for economic development, competitiveness and cost-effective governing. We must take the opportunity that has been presented this year to send a strong message that ethical governance is a top voter priority. In 2010, Alan Hassenfeld and I co-authored an opinion piece encouraging this reform and wrote, “Should not having strong and comprehensive ethics laws in Rhode Island be a priority? Clearly, as the events of the last several months have shown, strong ethics laws are a necessity in Rhode Island. The state senate alone has seen two of its employees and one of its members indicted. Another senator was publicly accused of attempting to coerce a mayor into making a municipal appointment of a former senator in exchange for a favorable vote on a town fiscal bill. The change we are suggesting, if allowed to go to the voters, would go a long way to restoring trust in an institution that is sorely lacking it. What can be a greater priority than that?” Some things have changed in six years, but the need for reform has not.
A recent poll showed that more than three-quarters of likely voters support question 2, and I am hopeful that the final tally will be even higher as voters learn about what the ballot question entails. Please share this information and encourage others to vote Yes on question 2. For more information and to join the Rhode Island Coalition for Ethics Reform, visit yeson2ri.com.
The writer is the executive director Common Cause.